If you only get your news from the Fairfax press, you would have missed the most damaging scandal yet to have rocked Aboriginal affairs. The story was front-page treatment on News Limited newspapers, especially the Australian, when it broke on April 14, and for the following five days. Several television and online forums canvassed its consequences. But Fairfax editors regarded it as such a threat to their worldview they imposed a nationwide ban on the story. Not a word about it appeared on the pages of the Sydney Morning Herald, the Age, the Australian Financial Review or the Sun-Herald.
The incident began after the chair of the Northern Territory’s Indigenous Affairs Advisory Council, Bess Nungarrayi Price, appearing on the ABC’s Q&A television program, spoke favourably about the Howard government’s 2007 intervention into Territory communities. “I’ve seen progress. I’ve seen women who now have voices,” Price said. “Children are being fed, and young people more or less know how to manage their lives.”
In response, Aboriginal academic Larissa Behrendt, sent a Twitter message to ABC radio presenter Rhianna Patrick, saying: “I watched a show where a guy had sex with a horse and I’m sure it was less offensive than Bess Price.” (She later said she’d seen the sex-with-a-horse incident on an episode of Deadwood on ABC2.)
Behrendt’s message exposed deep-seated differences within Aboriginal politics. In an op-ed piece in the Australian, academic Marcia Langton, who, like Price, grew up and lived a good part of her adult life in the outback, described Behrendt’s message as:
an exemplar of the wide cultural, moral and increasingly political rift between urban, left-wing, activist Aboriginal women and the bush women who witness the horrors of life in their communities, much of which is arrogantly denied by the former … Behrendt and the other anti-intervention campaign maestros have assumed the role of superior thinkers whose grand education and positions in the metropolis qualify them to heap contempt on the natives of that faraway place where other Australians rarely tread foot and about which they sustain a romantic out-of-date mythological view.
Bess Price came to Sydney in late March with her husband Dave for speaking engagements with the Centre for Independent Studies and the Catholic organisation Catalyst for Renewal. On March 24 she was welcomed with applause at a Quadrant dinner to launch Gary Johns’s book Aboriginal Self-Determination: The Whiteman’s Dream, for which she wrote the Foreword. The ABC then invited her to appear on the Q&A panel on Monday April 11. On Wednesday, while Johns was writing an opinion piece on his book for the Australian, Dave Price alerted him to the Behrendt message. By Thursday morning, the story was all over the front page and Bess Price and her antagonist were national talking points.
The timing of this incident was revealing. For the previous two weeks, Behrendt had been in the news on a daily basis as one of the plaintiffs in the Federal Court case alleging racial vilification against Herald Sun journalist Andrew Bolt. After her counsel Ron Merkel’s opening address, in which, outrageously, he accused Bolt of using the kind of racist language that produced the Holocaust (see Michael Connor’s full report in this edition), Behrendt’s moral ire and hubris came out on Twitter. She obviously thought she could get away with anything.
The Friday before, her current sexual partner, Michael Lavarch, had been boasting about their affair in the press: “Qantas loves us, absolutely loves us,” Lavarch told the Australian. “Two out of four weekends I am in Sydney and then one out of four she is in Brisbane.” What made this news was that Lavarch had been the Attorney-General in the Keating government that passed the Racial Hatred Act under which Behrendt was now prosecuting Bolt. Connections of this kind between parliamentarians and interest group identities became familiar tabloid fare in New South Wales under its late Labor government. Those old enough to remember the Whitlam government know such behaviour has been standard practice among federal Labor politicians for a very long time.
Until now, Behrendt’s career has had a dream run. Her Aboriginality and what journalists obligingly call her “deep sense of justice” have given her privileges and kudos few other Australians could hope for. She is the current Australian of the Year for New South Wales and was Indigenous Person of the Year in 2009, the same year she won the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for her second novel, Legacy. She is a director of the Museum of Contemporary Art, chair of the Bangarra Dance Theatre, and serves on several government boards. Last month the Gillard government appointed her to head a review into indigenous higher education.
Never a brilliant student, as she herself admits, she nonetheless gained a coveted undergraduate place in the law school at the University of New South Wales. After graduating in 1992, she applied for and won a scholarship to Harvard University where she completed a masters degree and doctorate on Aboriginal policy. Returning to Australia aged just twenty-nine, she was made Professor of Law at the University of Technology Sydney and director of the Jumbunna Learning Centre for indigenous students.
Larissa Behrendt was born in 1969 and grew up mainly in the middle-class Sydney suburb of Gymea on Port Hacking in the Sutherland Shire where she went to Kirrawee High School. Neither she nor her parents came from an Aboriginal community. Her part-Aboriginal father Paul was an air traffic controller and later an academic; her white mother Raema was an accountant.
In Sydney, girls from “the shire”—like the “valley girls” of Los Angeles—are notoriously obsessed with fashions, parties and boys, in that order. A shire girl from the shores of Port Hacking is about as culturally distant as it is possible to be from the sorry females in the blacks’ camps of Alice Springs. A girl from Clueless would not be a credible character in Samson and Delilah.
Nonetheless, the Behrendts made their careers out of claiming to be victims of racist government policies. Both Larissa and her father Paul have long played up the claim that his mother, Lavinia Boney, was a member of the Stolen Generations. The archival evidence, however, reveals this is quite untrue.
According to Lavinia Boney’s file in the New South Wales Aborigines Protection Board records, in 1917 when she was aged about thirteen and living at the blacks’ camp at Dungalea Station, near Walgett, her mother died. Her father’s whereabouts were unknown, so she was effectively an orphan. The Aborigines Protection Board found her a job as domestic servant on a pastoral station at Collarenabri. Her file says this was at “the girl’s own request to get away from camp life”. From 1921 to 1923 Lavinia was employed in domestic service in hospitals and private homes in Sydney and Parkes. She met the German editor Henry Behrendt at Parkes Hospital. They married and went to live at Lithgow. Lavinia eventually had nine children by him before she died in childbirth. In 1944 Henry placed five-year-old Paul and his surviving siblings in the Presbyterian Church’s Burnside Homes at Parramatta.
Aged fifteen, Paul left Burnside and joined the Royal Australian Navy. He trained to become an air traffic controller, a profession he later followed in civilian aviation at Cooma and Norfolk Island before settling in Sydney. While convalescing from a heart attack in 1980, he decided to pursue his Aboriginal mother’s history. His subsequently became known for his research abilities and his activism in Aboriginal politics. In 1988 the University of New South Wales appointed him inaugural director of its Aboriginal Research and Resource Centre. He was also the first chairman of the Aboriginal Studies Association.
In the 1980s, when I was employed at the University of New South Wales, my path crossed briefly with Paul Behrendt. Even in middle age he was a good-looking man and it was not surprising many women were attracted to him. Unless you knew, you would not have guessed he was of Aboriginal descent.
In the spectrum of Aboriginal politics, Paul was an ultra-leftist. In 1992, he argued that British colonisation of Australia was illegitimate and that Aborigines still held sovereignty over the continent. He was a joint author with Gerhard Fischer, Michael Mansell and others of the book The Mudrooroo Muller Project in which he demanded Aborigines be given a separate country, self-governing and with its own laws. Mansell used the book to make similar claims on behalf of the Aboriginal Provisional Government. At this time, Larissa Behrendt was also a member of the Aboriginal Provisional Government. In 1987 and 1988, Mansell had gone to Libya seeking funding for his organisation from the Libyan dictator Muamma al-Gaddafi. He also sought to join Gaddafi’s Mathaba worldwide group of insurgents and terrorists.
About this time, after years of philandering, Paul deserted his family. He lived in a hippie commune before moving in with Bobbi Sykes, the black activist made famous in the 1970s at the Aboriginal Tent Embassy at Parliament House, Canberra. She was also a supporter of the Black Panthers movement. Sykes subsequently won herself a scholarship to Harvard University where she was described as its first Aboriginal graduate. However, her Aboriginal identity was later declared fraudulent by another Aboriginal activist, Pat O’Shane, the New South Wales magistrate, also from Sykes’s birthplace, Townsville. Bobbi’s father was not an Aborigine but a black American soldier stationed in North Queensland during the Second World War.
Sykes nonetheless became important in Larissa Behrendt’s life by showing her how she could also get to Harvard. Sykes advised her on what to say. “She literally put the forms in front of me,” Larissa told a Sydney Morning Herald journalist in 2010. Larissa admitted she was not the best qualified candidate. In her undergraduate degree, “I hadn’t got particularly high marks.” Yet she was preferred ahead of a university medallist, and the decision generated a complaint. In an age of affirmative action in higher education, however, she fitted the required profile. “I think Harvard saw a gap in their intake,” she explained.
After one failed marriage to an American artist, Larissa today lives in a high-rise apartment in the Sydney CBD. She turned forty in 2009, and has no children. She enjoys a life not uncommon among highly-paid urban professionals. For one of her many newspaper and magazine profiles, she took a journalist to an upmarket Italian restaurant in the city, where she was on cheek-kissing terms with the waiters. As she walked in they cried out with delight: “Larissa!”
In the Aboriginal political community, however, she is likely to be seen as less delightful from now on. Many of those who have deferred to her qualifications and ability to influence careers will now regard her as a liability. Indeed, her obvious distaste for Aborigines with different political views may well generate a revival of the sentiments I recorded in Quadrant in December last year when discussing the author Sally Morgan’s claim to Aboriginal identity. The activist Jackie Huggins had said that, even though people may have some Aboriginal ancestors, they could not be genuine Aborigines if they had been brought up in white suburbs without any engagement with an Aboriginal community.
For saying much the same thing, it should be remembered, Andrew Bolt went on trial last month under the Racial Vilification Act. Hence, whatever the outcome of the Bolt trial, Larissa Behrendt’s Twitter outburst has ensured there will be more people in the future prepared to make the same point about the members of the Aboriginal political class who are enjoying a life as privileged as hers.